End of Space Exploration – Mickey Collins

Space exploration has ended. We’ve reached the end. Space is not infinitely expanding, though at one point we did think that. Space does have an end. I should know, I live there.

I stretch out and my hands bump into the ceiling. This isn’t all that surprising; they said I might experience some variance in my height while out on the edge of space. I worry that I’ll soon outgrow this tiny space station and my arms will burst through the windows. I am stationary while my bones slowly pull away from me, like her. She’s on a distant planet spinning in an elliptical orbit, sometimes closer to me and sometimes farther out.

I stretch my hands out  in front of me and run them across my dashboard. Most of the buttons are just for show, but I’ve made a little game of guessing which light will turn on next. Will it be the opaque grey circle, the little yellow triangle? Or maybe today will finally be the day when the clear red button lights up. I’ve never seen it lit, which is probably a good thing. Watching these buttons is all I can do to keep from dying of boredom. In front of me is the entire universe and I’m bored. I haven’t seen another living person in months.

My job is simple enough: turn back lookie-loos after they take their photos and make sure they don’t cross over the edge. Make sure they don’t jump, as it were. Usually it’s these guffawing families with no interest in jumping, just for checking it off their list of things they did so they can go home and tell their neighbors. Sometimes the parents will look a little suicidal from being trapped with their little offspring for so long. I keep a close eye on them and try to help them relax.

“Hello,” I’d say. “My name is Miles and I guarantee smiles.” I would add a grin if there were children. The adults usually wouldn’t care for my antics.

With my back to the edge, I’d take their photo with the entire universe behind them as a backdrop. And then I’d lead them to the gift shop. We have all sorts of doodads in the gift shop. Our most popular items are shirts that proclaim “I made it to the end of the universe and back.” I’d tell them I could ship it to them, because they hadn’t made it back home yet. They always laughed. That was where the promised smile came. We also carry official photos of the edge of the universe, which are just pure black squares of ink. That’s as close as I’d ever need to get to the edge.

It’s nice meeting new people. The therapist said I needed to “get out and meet new people.” It was like he was breaking up with me for her. But these new friends don’t last long. It’s not like there’s a theme park at the edge of the universe, just emptiness and nothingness. Most people think those two things are the same until they experience it. These tourists would never understand no matter how much they look at the edge. They buy their whatevers and then leave. I would only sometimes think of jumping in the back of their ships and leaving with them. Those happy, smiling families off on vacations to who-knows-where.

I once struck up a conversation with one of them, once I got brave enough. I was feeling the pangs of homesickness like never before. I could still remember her home cooking, her smell, her smile (what I missed the most), but it was fading. I didn’t want to forget them. The tourist was traveling alone, just him and his pet he said. I asked him about hitching a ride back, I wouldn’t take up much space, and I’d be quiet too. He seemed like he’d be an OK guy; he was older and either widowed or divorced. “Running from something?” he asked. “You can’t run from your problems. You’re here on the edge of the universe, so you must know something about running. But believe me,” here he looked wistfully into the stars, “it just won’t work. There are things that will stick to you no matter how much space you get between you and it. You won’t ever become a better person without facing your problems head on.” I decided to stick out the rest of my stint then.

It would be another month, if I’m correct, before my ride would be here to pick me up and drop off the next sucker who would man this station. The only thing that keeps me going is thinking of returning to her as a new man. But who will she be? Would I be too late, to return to her as a new man, but she’d already be with a newer man? Time and women are so fickle.

I wanted some time to myself, but I haven’t seen anyone in months. Everyone must be going to the other end of the universe instead. With faster-than-light travel, it’s easy enough for anyone in the universe to stop by for a little vacation or to stare into the absolute darkness and contemplate their place in existence. I don’t really see the point. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’m thinking in circles. At least I’m not talking to myself.

Once the green square-shaped button lights up for the 357th time (the green square is the most reliable of the buttons, truly more trustworthy than the other buttons), I decide it’s time for lunch. You lose all sense of time out here. It’s been three weeks since her last video message according to the stubble on my chin.

When we were together, I should have spent all my time with her. That’s what she wanted. It was a non-stop parade of eating dinner together, seeing movies together, going out on date after date. I had to learn how to eat spaghetti–her favorite food was Italian–with my left hand, since she didn’t even want to let go during meal times.

When I come back from my thoughts, I find that my hands have intertwined subconsciously. I look around, but of course no one is watching. If she saw me holding hands with myself she’d laugh. Everyone always said that her smile could brighten up any room. I shake them apart.

I relished the times when I could be alone, when she was at work or I was in the bathroom. In those moments, I suppose I did get self-introspective. I thought of how I had gotten there. What choices had brought me to that moment. Would there be an end? I have some of those same thoughts aboard this space station, but with different answers.

I stand in front of the fridge deciding what to eat. That used to annoy her. She said I was wasting energy. Or she was annoyed at my indecisiveness. But I couldn’t help it. She wanted to go out and eat with friends, she had more love and brightness than I was able to receive.

I decide on lunch, not that there were many options. They’re all ready-to-eat meals, meant to be eaten without any heat or water added. Even though they have different labels attached to them, all of them taste the way gray looks. And they look like chalk. The only salivating thing that was here when I arrived were boxes of Tang. I was supposed to ration them out to one every meal. I’m down to just one packet left, which I’m saving.

I take a walk after lunch. It takes me less than a half-hour, by my estimate, to walk around the entire station. It’s nothing more than a guard post, really. Sort of the size of two shipping crates put together; one side is the gift shop and one is my living area. Nothing has changed since my last walk about. The blue blinking light of the messaging machine still calls to me as I pass by it. But I continue. I liked waiting for there to be two messages from her, so I’d have something to look forward to. I can’t bring myself to watch the last one. That would make everything final. I would save it for my last day here. That gives me something to look forward to. And that sweet, sweet Tang.

The first message she sent was here by the time I had awoken on the station from my space coma. She must have sent it the day after I left, maybe two days, I can’t remember now. I do remember how she looked when she waved me off the day I left. Her face was the last thing I saw before I went under, but only because I held that image of her. She held her hand in front of her face, so I can’t be sure if she was smiling. But I know she waved at me with her free hand, in her simple blue dress that hung loosely around her frame, and under her auburn hair, freshly washed, that pair of jade earrings I bought her, her favorites.  On further thought, she wasn’t wearing that dress in the message, so she must have waited at least a day.

I can hardly tell the days apart anymore. Everything blends together. Her electronified voice saying she missed me, beamed through space, still rings in my head. But the recording is gone now. Lost. And she’d probably deny she’d ever said it in the first place. That last image of her in her blue dress keeps me going.

There’s galaxies between us now. She got her wish. Her messages started coming in less frequently. It’s difficult to communicate on a delay. Sometimes I got upset when she would mention a new man in her life—even though she would remind me that the therapist had suggested it—and I would reply to her quickly in a rage, saying things that I shouldn’t have meant. Things like her old promises, which I knew rang false after so long. I regretted my words as soon as the message sent. But the apology wouldn’t reach her for hours or even days after the initial message. And then she would reply to my first message without seeing the second one (or maybe she had, I wouldn’t know) and that would bring it all back up for me. She would tell me that I was acting childish, she’d bring up the therapist and how we both agreed to this, and she’d tell me I hadn’t changed at all.

And now all I have is the one she sent months ago, that blinking blue light.

I never once mentioned how she’d been gaining weight—overeating in her distress over me. Maybe she wasn’t really meeting new men and was just testing me. I would notice the apartment decor would change in each video she sent—trying to get rid of reminders of me. “Where had my favorite space movie poster gone?” I had asked. And in her next reply she wouldn’t mention it at all.  An accidental omission? Or a viperous sting? In the years we were together she never once forgot my birthday and she always reminded me of hers.

The year before we started seeing a therapist was especially bad. I had truly forgotten about her birthday, despite her reminders. She was really upset and I wanted to fix it. But there was something in the back of my mind that said, this is an equal relationship and she would want to be treated as an equal. So I compromised on her birthday and got ice cream cake, my favorite but I know she hates it. I actually thought it’d be something that we could laugh about, that she would take a bite of it and turn to me with a goofy grin and give me an “Oh you.” Everything I did seems so silly in retrospect. Maybe that’s why she kicked me out, why the therapist said to get away from each other and look at ourselves. That’s all I have here. Everything is chrome on this station. I can’t help but look at myself every day. That’s why I stare out at space.

I still have one “month” left of my stint here if I can trust myself.

She’s probably with someone right now. I’m not that dumb. Not to say I couldn’t have explored my options as well. But they’re few and light-years apart. She was almost too eager to follow the therapist’s suggestions. I can’t help but think now and then that they were in on this together. Getting me sent out here. Who’s to say that those two aren’t together now? Thoughts of the therapist being the one to see her smiles, the one that receives her patented shoulder rubs, or hears the cute way she emphasizes “ah” in stars and cars. These thoughts keep me up at nights. I don’t actually have nights. There is no time out here. I try counting the days by keeping regular meal times. But it’s near impossible. Sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever get another home cooked meal again.

At one point she had wanted us to never be apart (I really thought that she was going to propose to me, she talked about it constantly with the therapist), but then she booted me to the furthest—farthest—place possible.

After my walk, I go back to my desk. The view hasn’t changed. Just countless (I’ve tried) stars. Though I think I at least know which blinking light is home. Part of my view is emptiness, the sure sign of a black hole. Since I’ve been on the station, the stars have been disappearing in that area as the black hole grows. Part of my training for this job included basic astronomy, though I’ve forgotten just about anything that doesn’t relate directly to manning this station.

I take a nap. The computer will wake me with plenty of time to greet any tourists. There won’t be any tourists.

 

The station is shaking. I listen for alarms, but there is only a general clanging. Could the station be under attack? There’s no way that a ship could have gotten past all of the sensors. Who would want to attack this station anyways?

I stumble out, bleary, to my post. Nothing on the monitors. Nothing out the window. Just empty space. But the station is shaking. Is this a space quake? Panic sets in and I duck and cover like I was trained to do in a quake. The only other training I had was how to greet tourists.

The station stops shaking. Still no warnings, no alarms, nothing on the monitor. I check the station’s logs, but nothing seems out of the ordinary. There’s still one blinking light on the answering machine. So nothing’s changed.

I try to relax. Maybe I had just stood up too fast from my nap and got lightheaded. There was nothing else it could be. A space quake, on the edge of the universe? As if. But then another thought comes to me: is the universe expanding? Was that shaking a sort of growth spurt? My heart sinks. To be pulled even further away from her would be dreadful.

I decide to eat. That always calms me down. Whenever I get anxious or lonely or bored, there’s always something in the fridge.

As I sit down to eat, I hear a beep. Perhaps I was more shook up from the shake than I realized. But there’s a persistent beeping all throughout my meal.

I follow the beep to the monitor. I check the logs again, but everything is in shape. I then realize what the unfamiliar beep is: someone is hailing the station. But that couldn’t be. It’s most likely a prank call from a nearby (lightyears in distance and maturity) planetoid. I figure it would be nice to hear a voice, human or otherwise, even if it turns out to be a joke at my expense.

I push the button and answer the call, fully expecting an “edgy” joke from a giggling teen. But the man on the line is exasperated.

“Finally, you pick up. I was worried I’d be stranded out here for the rest of my short life.”

This is not a teen. It’s the voice of an elderly gentleman. It’s been so long since my voice has needed to work, I find it hard to form words. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.

“Hello?” he says again. “Is anyone there?”

“H-hello,” I say at last. “Who is this?”

“Oh thank Persei,” he says. “I was worried I had died and this was hell. Where am I?”

“This is hell,” I reply. “You’re at the edge of the universe.”

“Edge of the universe huh? Well I guess I just came from beyond the edge.”

So it is a prank caller, disguising his voice to sound older. I laugh. It’s good to laugh. “Funny.”

“Don’t hang up! Please, I need your help. My ship’s been busted up from the trip over the edge.”

I want to hang up, but I don’t know when I’d get to talk to anyone again. “Really?” I look out into space. “I don’t see any ships.”

“You can’t see me? Didn’t you feel it when I ran into you?”

Of course, the station doesn’t have sensors to pick up approaching objects from the rear. Why should it? That shaking from earlier…

“Can I dock? I’ll be able to explain myself better in person.”

I shrug. And then I realize that he wouldn’t be able to see that. “The airlock is around front, er, the side opposite from you. I’ll meet you in the gift shop.”

“Gift shop?” He ends the communication. The station shakes again as he pulls along the side.

I pick up clothes and food containers. It would be the first time that someone was in my living quarters. The gift shop is clean enough, there’s hardly any dust or cobwebs to worry about in space, but I only cleaned up the living quarters when I video messaged her, and only cleaned myself up for her or tourists.

The shaking stops and I hear a knock on the airlock. My heart races but I pressed the unlock button all the same, trying to steady my hands.

I enter the gift shop as the airlock finishes cycling and he opens the opposite door into the shop.

“Hello,” I say. “Want a t-shirt?” I give him a Miles smile.

“Got any that say, ‘I went to the edge and I jumped’?” He laughs. He’s light-skinned and has a grey beard that hides half his neck. His grimey space suit covers the other half. He looks a little rough around the edges, travel-weary, but it was nice to see anyone that didn’t look like a mirrored version of myself. I almost want to hug him.

 

I sit across from the table from him. I had offered him the one chair I had, but he elected to lean against the chrome counter. He sips from the chalk coffee I made. A little pours out of the sides of the cup as he drinks too quickly, pouring down into his beard. He doesn’t notice until I point it out.

“Excuse me,” he says. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone.”

“I know that feeling,” I say.

We sit in silence for a bit. There was a space elephant in the room weighing down our conversation, but I didn’t want to ask if he wasn’t going to be forthcoming with it. I stuff my mouth with bite after bite of whatever I grabbed from the fridge to pass the silence. I had offered him something similar, but he turned me down. I had insisted that I wouldn’t mind sharing my rations. He still wouldn’t.

“My name’s Miles,” I say suddenly, after swallowing. “And I guarantee–.” I stop myself.

He chuckles. “And I’m Cedric.” Another moment of silence. Who knows how long it lasts. I count my heartbeats. 80 beats before he talks again. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

I was focusing on counting and my heart rate picks up after he speaks. “It’s home,” I say, shrugging exaggeratedly. “Well not really home. This is just temporary, of course. It’s a job. I’ll be going home home soon though.”

He chuckles again. “I’m sorry,” he says, probably due to the face I make at his laugh. “But you’re not going to go home.”

“What? What do you mean? Of course I am. I was only supposed to be here for two years. And, if I’m correct, that time is almost up.”

“Says who?” he asks as he closes his eyes and sips from his coffee. He makes an effort to not spill any this time.

“The people in charge.” I struggle to remember names or faces of the organization. I grow hot. “Look, you can’t just come in here and start making me question the nature of my reality. I know what I know, and what I don’t know is who the hell you are to waltz in here and start saying stuff like that. We both might be a little rusty when it comes to talking to people, but you can’t do that to me.”

He sets the mug back on the chrome table and sighs. “Alright,” he says. “I’ll tell you the truth, if that’s what you want.”

I nod.

He inhales. “I’m like you, I was a guard for the other edge of the universe. Day after day I would be stuck in a tiny space just like this one. I would assist tourists, make sure no one jumped, and just wait for my rotation to be over. I tried counting the days, as I’m sure you have, but to no avail. All I had was a far-off promise that kept me going.

“One day, as I am tinkering with the station, I stumble upon the diary logs of past guards locked away and hidden in the drives of the ship. I’ll save you their long stories, suffice to say they were like us, but eventually they all went insane from the loneliness and their logs stopped suddenly. I assume they killed themselves. The very next day a new guard would be installed and that was that. I found this hard to believe at first, but things began to add up. Do you know when the last time a tourist actually came by?”

I searched my memory and shook my head. I thought it had been a couple of months, but could I be sure?

“Anyway, I got fed up. I realized that I would never be going back home. This isn’t a job, it’s a death sentence. And so I took the emergency shuttle and decided to leave, but they weren’t going to let me out, obviously. They can control how far the ship can travel remotely. As soon as I tried to leave the station, the distance was halved, not even enough to make it to the next fuel station. There was only one direction I could go with as much fuel as they gave me.”

“You flew over the edge.”

“And look at me now. I ended up at the other end of space, gray-haired.”

“But now you’re stuck on the other end of space with me.” Can I trust him? I don’t want to die here.

“Except you have an emergency ship here, too. And we can remove their tracking system from it before they’ll know and we can get out of here for good.”

I finish my meal, but I still feel hungry. My heart beats erratically. I only had a month left before a shuttle would come and pick me up. Or if he was right, I would stay here until I went crazy and died. The only thing that had been keeping me sane was the thought of her. And that last message I still had to listen to.

“Isn’t there somewhere else you’d rather be?” he asks. “Someone you’d rather be with?”

“Of course,” I say. “But she’s the one that put me out here. She wanted her space and I gave it to her. So I’m going to return to her as a new man.”

“Wouldn’t traveling with some guy you just met across space show her that?”

The question took me back. “Look, you can take my ship. I’m not going to need it. I’ll stay here. I’ve changed enough for her.”

“Suit yourself,” he says. He stands up. “I’m going to head to the other end of the universe and save the guy they no doubt put in to replace me. Maybe he will want to join me and take out the jerks that put us out here.”

 

He reenters the room, his beard and clothes covered in grease. “Alright,” he says. “I’m all set.”

I nod without looking away from the monitor.

“Last chance,” he says. He wipes his hands on his pants. In one corner of my eye he stands there for what seems like forever. In the other corner of my eye is the infinitely blinking blue light. By the time I look up, he’s gone.

I stretch my shoulders out and extend my hands to the side. Good riddance, I think. I knock over a glass of water as I do so. I’m still not used to my stretching body. I quickly grab for the glass, but my awkwardness gets the best of me. The glass shatters and the water spills over the control panel, spilling into the answering machine. It’s too late.

There’s an electrical sizzling sound, and light smoke starts to rise.

“No, no!” I curse myself as the blue light blinks erratically, faster then slower, and then fades to nothing. I want to cry. And then I do cry, as her voice comes out of the monitor.

“Hi Miles,” she says. Even though there is no image, I can see her frown as she says it. “This will be my last” SzztZzst. The message cuts out for a second. “Space must be pretty great–” Kshzt. “–not returning my messages–” ZzSZZt. “–miss you. I’ll be waiting–” SZzsSzk. “six months… I love you.”

The message machine is smoking heavily as the message ends. I look at my outgoing logs and see there was an error sending my last two messages. She never received them, or I never sent them. I look down at the table, only to see my teary-eyed face looking back. I want to punch my reflection, but I don’t have time.

I run into the gift shop and the airlock. I haphazardly put on the space suit and I hope that everything is in place. I tap my foot as I wait for the airlock to cycle. I bang on the door and pray that Cedric hasn’t truly left yet. The door finally opens out into space. Empty space. No Cedric.

For the first time since I’ve been on this station, I see the edge of the universe. I use the suit’s propulsion jets to get closer to it, closer than anyone has before. I stare into it. Even through the helmet’s tinted visor I can see that it’s more than just blackness, it’s finality. The finality of space, of time, of humans. What can you do when you’ve been pushed away to the edge of everything? We had promised each other that we could try to find ourselves while we spent some time apart. I find it hard to breathe.

She was a star when I was with her, bright and beautiful, and the closer she pulled me in the more I felt the intense pressure of her love, pressure that creates the basis for all life. But if she was a star I was a black hole, trying to drag her down with me. It’s good we got apart, lest I absorbed her in my blackness.

I lean closer over the edge. Cedric said he came from the other side. I wonder what that was like. The blackness comes up around me. I cannot see my hands in front of my body any longer. There are no more blinking stars or lights. Just an image of her smiling, waving at me in her blue dress, like a star going supernova.

I feel nothing.

 

 

 

 

Mickey rights wrongs. Mickey wrongs rites. Mickey writes words, sometimes wrong words but he tries to get it write.

 

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